A friend once told me that when he joined the Masonic Order as a young man it was not because he believed that they had secrets he wished to discover (like anyone who wished to inquire at a public library, he knew there weren’t really any secrets). Nor was it because he was much interested in their rituals, he had become a master mason, the third degree, but had never been interested in the thirty other side degrees. Nor was it because he thought it would bring him advancement in his career, most of his colleagues were Roman Catholics who would not have recognized a particular handshake as meaning anything. The reason he joined the Freemasons was for companionship. Wherever he might be sent in Ireland to work, if he went along to the meeting of the local lodge, he would find a friendly welcome.
Never being much of a person for joining things and thinking rolling up one’s trouser leg and taking off one’s shirt is more the stuff of Monty Python than the world in which I live, I have never been tempted to join the Masonic Order, but I can understand why someone would want to join to find friendship. To have someone to listen to stories, to have someone who accepts you for being you, to have someone taciturn in their response, seems not such a bad thing.
The Washington Post reported last week on a scheme in Japan where people who feel isolated can “rent a stranger.”
Anyone familiar with Japanese television from times past might wonder if that is some psychological version of the game show Endurance, clips from which used to leave English television presenter Chris Tarrant sitting looking bemused. However, it is not an endurance test, or if it is about endurance, it is about the capacity of the stranger to sit and listen. It is about having someone with whom to go to places, about having someone with whom to talk.
Once, people lived in communities where everyone knew someone. Stand in the pub in the evening, and the faces were familiar. Go to the football match at the weekend, and the usual people would be standing around you. Walk down the street in the morning, and the greetings were from those whom you had known for years.
Society has become atomised, isolation has been exacerbated by lockdowns, acquaintances reduced in number by remote working practices. Communication may never have been easier, but loneliness has never been greater. Renting a stranger seems a much easier option than swearing to have your tongue torn out and being buried neck deep below the high tide mark if you betray any of the (non) secrets.